Stephen Smith with son

Higher Education for All

Higher Education for All

What WV Can’t Wait For

Every West Virginian will have a fair opportunity–independent of the wealth of their family–to pursue higher education and training.

Stephen with kids 3

What We’re Up Against

States that invest in higher education are thriving. States that don’t, aren’t.

Possessing a college degree, professional licensure, or vocational certification boosts lifetime earnings, and helps workers weather economic downturns. However, our state lags behind the nation in educational attainment, coming in dead last. In fact, West Virginia has the 8th worst college completion rate in the country, and Forbes ranks us among the worst states for business (rank: 49), in part because of our lack of an educated workforce (rank: 50).

This isn’t because West Virginians aren’t seeking educational opportunities; it’s because those opportunities are unaffordable. West Virginia has the highest rate in the nation–77%–of kids who need to take out loans to get through college. We also have the highest rate of student loan default in the nation.

Where once a kid could work at a minimum wage job during the summer to pay for college, now that same work would only pay for about 25% of tuition–presuming every cent of that money is going to nothing else (like, for instance, food or shelter).

What that all boils down to is that when our hardworking kids graduate college, more than three-quarters of them are in debt, leaving us with a “brain drain,” as jobs that pay well enough for them to meet loan payments take them away from our state.

Other states like New York and Tennessee have in recent years passed legislation which allocates state funding for free community college and vocational training.

West Virginia currently has a program called West Virginia Invests, but it provides funding only to West Virginia residents who have recently graduated high school, and it also provides funding only for certain programs. This is not a program that will turn around our dismal educational rankings. Universally accessible, affordable, quality higher education in the state of West Virginia is an immediate and fundamental need—for all of us, not just some.

Unsurprisingly, earning a college degree and making more money has been shown to improve health outcomes for chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease (two major public health concerns in West Virginia, where we have the highest rate of heart disease in the nation, and the second highest rate of diabetes).

Additionally, investing in an education is vital to the strength of our economy: high wage states–AND high productivity states–are states that retain or attract educated workers. This makes for a more resilient economy that resists the boom and bust in sacrifice zones that Good Old Boy politicians have built.

All that said, providing publicly-funded college and vocational education to West Virginians is not only worth fighting for because public funding for higher education will help restore our economy and our workforce. There’s a more basic, more fundamentally American value to pursue: eradicating generational poverty. Higher education must not be something accessible only to children whose parents are wealthy.

Our Plan

  1. Provide publicly-funded college tuition for every eligible West Virginian attending a public college, vocational/ technical college, or certification program. Eligibility requirements could include progress toward a degree or certificate, an income cap,  and/or requiring a graduate to remain in-state for a length of time post-graduation.
  2. Execute the country’s most ambitious state-level Student Loan Forgiveness Plan. The Take Me Home Plan will provide educational loan forgiveness for tens of thousands of West Virginians, and for college graduates who move here.
  3. Provide relief to people who have already borrowed, by prohibiting wage garnishment in West Virginia due to unpaid student loan debt. Big banks have been “scamm[ing] student loan borrowers out of hundreds of millions of dollars, pushing predatory private loans, sticking struggling borrowers with illegal fees, and driving people needlessly into default” so they can profit. Bankruptcy law is federal, but our state can still provide much-needed protections from predatory student loan servicers. So, into WV Code §46A-2-130, we will add a 2(d): “Garnishment for student loan debt that cannot be discharged by bankruptcy is prohibited.”  This will not only protect West Virginians from predatory student debt collectors, but will attract college graduates to our state and improve our workforce, as well as incentivize collection agencies to treat West Virginia borrowers fairly in the first place.
  4. Develop a first-in-the-nation state program for increasing rural student college retention rates–and re-enrolling those who have left. West Virginia ranks high nationally in high school graduation rates, but rural students drop out of college at disproportionately high rates. This creates a special financial hardship for rural students. Our program will invest in a combination of additional scholarships, resources, counseling, and support for low-income and rural students.
  5. Expand “early college” partnerships between high and middle schools and apprenticeship programs, as well as programs in Community and Technical Colleges, partnering with unions when possible. With this investment, some students will be able to graduate from high school with a technical certification or even an Associate’s Degree, akin to what’s currently being piloted at BridgeValley Community and Technical College and West Virginia University-Parkersburg. 
    • Pilot a workforce navigators program that will help increase collaboration between high schools, colleges, technical colleges, and the job market.
    • We must also invest in job training, apprenticeship, and job placement programs in the state already having success. WV Women Work is one such example.

How We Pay For It


Total cost: $168 million, funded primarily from the Mountaineer Service Corps.

Publicly funded college cost: $147.96 million. At current enrollment rates, the last-dollar cost is $123.3 million, but we account for an increase in enrollment of 20%.

Retention and re-enrollment plan: $10 million

“Early college” programs: $10 million

Every one of our New Deal plans was written by West Virginians.

  • Our volunteers asked 11,000 of their neighbors, “What would you do if you were Governor?”
  • Our candidates attended 197 Town Halls, taking notes in community centers, church basements, union halls, and small businesses.
  • Educators met after work to start sketching out their perfect school.
  • Nurses traded ideas on the picket line.
  • Our county and constituency captains ratified a first platform in the fall of 2019 and updated it in the spring of 2020 to reflect the current pandemic.

But the legacy of this New Deal dates back to John Brown and Mother Jones, to the United Mine Workers of America and the suffragettes, to the Poor People’s Movement and the CIO.

No one politician or slate of candidates can win this plan alone. We need you.

If you have an idea for how to make this plan stronger, or if you would like to lend a hand to win it, contact our candidate for Governor Stephen Smith at

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Join the Movement

We have hundreds of volunteers in every corner of the state, and a growing slate of candidates who will need our help in 2022. It will take 1,000 leaders not 1 to win a West Virginia that works for all of us.